The compact SUV goes from cute-ute to king of the road
▶ ▶ Small sport-utes are poised to surpass the Camry and Accord as America’s favorite family ride ▶ ▶ “There’s really been a shift in taste across the board”
Craig and Tiffany Sollman of Greenville, S.C., are the kind of car buyers America’s sedan makers once could count on: He’s 41, she’s 33, and their baby boy, Micah, just turned 3 months old. The Sollmans, though, never really gave much thought to a sedan before plunking down $24,000 recently for a tan Toyota RAV4 sportutility vehicle. “The ride is great, it gets good gas mileage, and there’s enough room in the back for baby accessories,” Craig said in an e-mail, because he and his wife are too busy with Micah to chat on the phone. “My wife’s best friend delivered a daughter within a month of us, and they also went out and got a Toyota RAV4.”
Thanks to drivers like the Sollmans, the family sedan’s decades of dominance—from the Chevy Bel Air in the 1950s through the Toyota Camry of today—are coming to an end. Compact SUVS including the RAV4, Honda CR-V, and Ford Escape are the new family car of choice. Small sport-utes started outselling the Camry, Honda Accord, and other midsize sedans last summer; this year they’ll overtake traditional cars, selling about 3.1 million vs. 3 million, to command the largest share of the U. S. auto market for the first time, according to researcher LMC Automotive.
“Sedans used to be the bread-andbutter segment, but now compact SUVS have become the go-to vehicle,” says Jeff Schuster, senior vice president for forecasting at LMC. “There’s really been a shift in taste across the board.”
Driving this dramatic departure is a society that likes to ride high and live large. Modern SUVS bear little resemblance to the rugged roustabouts of yore. They don’t guzzle: A CR-V gets 33 miles per gallon on the highway. They don’t rattle your bones: Many are built on smooth-riding car chassis, not truck frames. And they’re affordable: The average price is $26,400, just $700 more than a midsize car, according to automotive pricing website Edmunds.com.
They’re also more broadly appealing than the small SUVS Toyota Motor and Honda Motor introduced in the late